Funded by a grant from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Martha Washington Papers project aims to collect, transcribe, and annotate all existing letters to and from Martha Washington. In addition to bringing new documents to light, the edition will create a vital scholarly source by providing comprehensive annotation in one print volume. With editorial work nearly complete, the print volume is scheduled for publication in 2021.
The publication history of Martha Washington’s documents is quite different from that of her husband’s. George Washington’s papers went through three large-scale editions before the publication of the Papers of George Washington volumes, whereas Martha Washington’s papers have only been published in an edition once. Perhaps this contrast is due to her evident lack of interest in preserving her papers. For instance, she most likely burned her correspondence with George, which was a common practice at the time for bereaved spouses. Additionally, it seems Martha did not invest her identity in writing, as did her historian friend Mercy Otis Warren. She seems to have been more concerned with the day-to-day wellness of her family than with the interests of posterity. Also, widespread interest in publishing women’s papers is a relatively recent phenomenon.
In any case, few of her letters were published during her lifetime. Only her December 31, 1799 missive to John Adams had widespread circulation. Newspapers in every state printed it because it expressed her reluctant consent to bury her husband in the U.S. Capitol building rather than at Mount Vernon. After her death, interest in Martha Washington was more in her symbolic presence than in her actual life and documents. A couple of authentic letters to her niece, Frances Bassett Washington, did find their way into imprints and journal articles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When one of her letters was published, however, it was often erroneously proclaimed as being the only Martha Washington document still in existence.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Joseph E. Fields, M.D., began collecting and transcribing all of Martha Washington’s extant documents. Though Fields was a doctor, he was deeply interested in women’s history and had also served as president of the Manuscript Society. His edition, Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington, was published in 1994. His work was groundbreaking because most documents included in the volume were being published for the first time. However, its flaws—such as misdated letters, incorrect citations, conflating documents together, and lack of identifications of people and places—made it clear that a new edition was needed to truly capture Martha Washington’s papers.
Martha Washington is vital to understanding George Washington’s life and character. But she also had her own goals, challenges, and social circles. By placing solid transcriptions of her documents in the context of the world and the people around her, our edition will show that Martha is an important historical figure in her own right.